No. 6 Aztec needed a good performance from its defense Friday night against No. 9 St. Pius X at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium, and the Tigers turned in a gem, intercepting Sartan quarterback Javier Jaramillo twice while forcing five fumbles.
Though the game remained close through the third quarter, the turnovers eventually cost St. Pius (3-4) as Aztec rolled to a 46-27 win to get to 3-3 overall before beginning District 1-4A games.
“It feels great. The kids played very hard and we are continuing to improve every week,” said Aztec head coach Matt Steinfeldt. “St. Pius was a very good football team that played hard and ran well. Our defense is really developing. We are bending but not breaking as much. We are still giving up a few too many years, but we will work to sure up our run defense every week.”
With every tackle, an Aztec defender had his hand on the ball trying to rip it away from the Sartans' ball carriers.
Cody Rinerson came up with two fumble recoveries in the game while Brad Hardin, Braden Goimarac and Conner Gaskins all recovered one.
“It feels good to make the plays and get the team going,” Rinerson said. “Those turnovers get the intensity up.
With Aztec leading 38-27 early in the fourth quarter, Aztec senior captain Adam Lucero intercepted a Jaramillo pass and returned it over 70 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach at 46-27 with 8:21 to play.
Lucero, who is also the quarterback, has not played defense since suffering a leg injury in Week 2 at Goddard, but he was happy to step back in and make a play Friday night in a crucial moment.
“All I was thinking about on the return was how tired I was,” Lucero joked. “I haven't done conditioning in five weeks and running 70 yards down the field was tiring. It felt weird being back on defense, honestly, but I love it and that is where I belong.”
Steinfeldt said the decision to insert Lucero back into the defense was based on how close the game was in the second half.
“We felt very confident Lucero could come contribute on defense. It was a tight game against a good team and we felt we needed an extra spark on defense, and we certainly got that from him,” Steinfeldt said.
Lucero was on fire playing quarterback Friday as well.
Right out of the gate, Lucero went 3-3 passing for 67 yards and a 35-yard touchdown pass to Brad Hardin to give the Tigers an early edge.
Overall, Lucero went 24-26 for 275 yards and four touchdowns. he did throw one interception that led to a Sartans touchdown in the third quarter, but Lucero also ran for two touchdowns on key 4th-and-goal situations.
Lucero gave all the credit to his teammates.
“Hardin is the animal who starts strong and finishes strong. We see him out there grinding his teeth and breaking tackles and it fires all of us up,” Lucero said. “Then when the other team focuses on him, we have guys like Rinerson, Ryneal Lewis-Adams, Goimarac and Wyatt Schlueter who can all make big plays for me.”
Hardin finished the game with eight catches and 100 yards receiving.
Rinerson had another six catches for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Goimarac hauled in four passes for 65 yards and a touchdown with just five seconds remaining in the third quarter that gave Aztec a 38-27 lead to change momentum going into the fourth quarter.
Schlueter also had a big touchdown grab in the third quarter to go with his four catches and 30 yards.
Aztec rushed for a net of only 13 yards on 10 carries in the first half, but finished strong on the ground as Lewis-Adams racked up 75 yards on the ground to go with 25 receiving yards.
But forcing all the turnovers is what won the game for Aztec.
“Give that all up to coaching. Mike Kovacs is a great defensive coordinator and we wouldn't be here without him,” Lucero said. “Big players stepped up and made the big plays we needed. Kovacs knew how to prepare us for Pius. We saw tendencies with how they carried the ball and we picked up on those thanks to Kovacs. We knew we could force some turnovers.”
Steinfeldt was happy to see how aggressive the defense played, and knows Friday's game was a big momentum booster as the team goes into a bye week to prepare for No. 8 Farmington (5-2).
After starting the season 0-2 and 1-3, both Lucero and Steinfeldt are happy with the way the team has rebounded to get to .500 for the first time all year.
“I think given all the things that went on with our program over the last six months, it would have been easy for us to crumble after a 1-3 start and probably more so than anything to crumble after the Goddard game,” Steinfeldt said. “The team has shown great resiliency and they want to finish the season, not just focus on the start.”
“It says a lot about our coaching,” Lucero said. “It would be easy to put your head down and give up, but the coaches stayed on us each week telling us it wasn't over. We are all going to keep fighting until the end. Our freshman year, we were 1-3 and Brad Hirsch told us we would be 7-3 going into the playoffs. I firmly believe we can be 6-3 this year going into the playoffs.”
Watching in the stands Friday night was No. 4 Piedra Vista (6-0), who faces St. Pius next week and eventually Aztec on Nov. 2.
“PV has a lot of weapons, but I will compare our athletes to theirs any day,” Lucero said. “I think ours are better.
“It doesn't matter what kind of message we sent tonight, we know the best team is going to win when we play.”
For now, Steinfeldt is happy to have two weeks to prepare for No. 8 Farmington.
“Our entire mindset is Farmington. The rest of district will be there when we get there, but FHS is the game we are focused on now,” he said. “They are a very good team that plays extremely well. It should be a great game to demonstrate how good football is in the Four Corners.”